Monday, November 11, 2013

what I'm reading: a huge and heroic sanity

Two years ago, I started Chesterton's Orthodoxy, the account of one man's journey to the Catholic faith.

I read the introduction and the second chapter. I wrote about it here and here and here.

And then I stopped. (Or did I get part-way through the third chapter? I don't recall, but a few vague jottings in the margins confirm it.)

The other day I picked it up again. I'm reading it during my *cough* bathroom breaks.

There's much I don't agree with in Chesterton's theology, but I am in awe of his depth of insight and power of expression.

In chapter 3 Chesterton writes about the emptiness of modern philosophy: "Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain."

Here's my favourite quote from this chapter. If you like, you can skip straight to the glorious paragraph at the end.
Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them.

I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret.

And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow.

Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing.

It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost. And with that thought came a larger one, and the colossal figure of her Master had also crossed the theatre of my thoughts.

There is a huge and heroic sanity of which moderns can only collect fragments. There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and legs walking about. They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labeled egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness. They have parted His garments among them, for His vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.

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